“Let’s do a ‘girls’ trekking trip in Vietnam”, said my dear friend, Miranda. “Fabulous idea”, I agreed, “Let’s book it!” Which is how I came to be looking down with some trepidation, at an extremely narrow, steep and slippery track. This was the start of our four day trek in the picturesque frontier town of Sapa, in northwest Vietnam.
Plans for the trip had been laid some eight months before, when Miranda had invited me to stay with her in Singapore, where she is presently living. The trekking idea materialised when she realised we could do the sights of Singapore in five days, leaving nine free days to explore further afield. After much research into the best areas for trekking and weather conditions in October, our month of travel, we decided on Sapa as our destination, as it is famous for its rugged scenery and colourful ethnic diversity.
When news of our ‘girls only’ trip reached our 25 year old daughters, they both decided they would like to join their intrepid mothers. They were easily added to the trip, so it was with great excitement that the four of us boarded the overnight train in Hanoi for the eight hour journey to Lao Cai.
As trains in Asia go, this was definitely one of the better ones! We had a tiny 4 berth cabin with very hard bunks, but it was clean and the door locked, so we were happy. We arrived in Lao Cai at 5am and boarded the bus for the one hour drive up to Sapa. The road was narrow and tortuous and the Vietnamese driving skills are such that we had our eyes shut for most of the journey! However, we arrived at our hostel in one piece, ready for a shower, breakfast and to meet our trekking guide, Lan, a Hmong woman. We also met our trekking companions, a father and son team from Sicily, who proved to be very good company and enormous fun.
After breakfast, carrying backpacks stuffed with everything we needed for 3 days, we set off through the town with Lan, our guide, to the start of the trek – the scary looking descent! As Sapa sits 1500m above sea level in Vietnam’s northwest mountains, the weather is very changeable and this day was no exception. We started in beautiful sunshine, but soon became shrouded in very damp and misty conditions. However, this did not detract from the incredible beauty of the scenery – miles of ancient rice terraces dotted with the occasional farm, lush vegetation and bamboo forests.
Passing through the first Hmong village on our route, we were joined by several of the village ladies, who, whilst only wearing flip-flops or jelly shoes on their feet, helped to guide us through the more difficult paths and trails, in return for us looking at and hopefully, buying, their home made items, such as blankets, jewellery and clothes, which we were more than happy to do, as their help was invaluable! We were totally in awe of these women, some of whom were not at all young, but all of whom were so strong and agile and appeared tireless. They used all our rest stops to get their embroidery out, so not a minute of the day was be wasted.
As we trekked on, we got a real flavour of life in this very beautiful part of the world. When passing through the villages, all the residents were busy – building houses, dying materials and hemp string for embroidery and even butchering a freshly killed pig! Children rarely attend school, instead the older ones take care of the younger ones, whilst Mum and Dad go out to work in the fields.
Sadly, the mist prevented us from seeing the view of Mount Fan Si Pan, which, apparently, is totally beautiful – on a good day! Eventually, after 8 hours of strenuous and sometimes, challenging trekking, we arrived at our homestay, which was Lan’s home. We were met on the approach to her house by her three children, the eldest who was 10, looks after her siblings whilst Lan works as a guide and her husband farms the land.
We were shown upstairs to a large room with 4 mattresses on the floor on one side and two on the other! No time for privacy here!
Lan went to work cooking us the most amazing feast of Vietnamese food we had ever seen and her daughter taught us how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, which was a really lovely – and tasted delicious.
When we eventually crawled up the stairs, completely exhausted, but very happy, we didn’t actually care that we were sharing a room with two men we barely knew, or that there were strange scrabbling sounds in the walls, we were just thankful to get some sleep after an exhilarating and enlightening day in the mountains of Sapa.
Day two faced us in the morning!
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